The news of Fernando Alonso rejoining Renault for 2021 is an important piece in the driver market puzzle, and it also takes a possible option away from Sebastian Vettel.
Alonso has returned to the team with which he grew up, made his name, and won the world championship. It’s a great story. Is there a chance that Vettel could follow suit and go back to his spiritual home at Red Bull?
It’s an obvious choice, of course, and one that Christian Horner and Helmut Marko have been playing down since Vettel’s departure from Ferrari was first announced.
It’s totally understandable – Red Bull has access to an embarrassment of riches in terms of young talent, and it’s never been a company that looks to the past. Time to move on.
However, sources in Austria have suggested that company boss Dietrich Mateschitz recently told his motorsport guru Marko to find a way to re-employ Vettel after he leaves Ferrari. If that really is the case then Marko and Horner may have to make some difficult decisions.
The main issue is obviously that Alex Albon has performed well since landing the Red Bull seat in the middle of last year, and he is still improving. Twice in the last three races he’s made a move on Lewis Hamilton, only to be punted off and lose a podium finish. Had he earned both of those results his long term future at the team would probably be secure already.
You could argue that notwithstanding his right to a Red Bull seat, Albon could be parked at AlphaTauri for a couple of years. And given the upcoming rule changes the Faenza team should be a stronger position than it is now, so it might not be so bad.
However, a demotion for Albon to AlphaTauri would mean no seat for either Daniil Kvyat or Pierre Gasly. In addition, adding Vettel to the mix for the next couple of seasons would make it even harder for Red Bull youngsters like Juri Vips to progress.
This logjam of talent leaves Marko and Horner in a tricky position, but at the end of the day Mateschitz is their boss and pays the bills. He is known to have a soft spot for Vettel, and they have retained a close personal friendship. Having said that the Thai co-owners of Red Bull are big supporters of Albon, and that would have to be addressed.
Helmut Marko, Consultant, Red Bull Racing, with Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images
Inevitably the subject of a return came up when Vettel joined team boss Horner and Max Verstappen joined Vettel for a Q&A session on Red Bull’s ServusTV, in a show broadcast from the circuit media centre on Monday evening.
He admitted that he had phoned Marko immediately after being told by Ferrari that he wasn’t required for 2021, although he insisted he was only asking for advice rather than pitching for a job.
“I called him right after the decision,” he explained. “But not to ask, ‘Helmut, do you have a place?’, but because I get along very well with him, and he has been a confidant for years.
“I asked him for advice. I described the situation to him as it is. He’s known for putting his heart on his sleeve. And then I spoke to him. What will come out in the end remains to be seen. The talks in this regard are of my own making.”
In the course of the Servus show, the German’s spell with the team was celebrated with a video that included contributions from his former teammate Mark Webber and other team members.
After viewing it Vettel was clearly emotional, especially when Horner heaped further praise on him.
“If you watch the video we had so many special memories with Sebastian,” said Horner. “Thirty eight races won together, the four titles. We had an incredible time in that period of his career. If he leaves F1, it will be F1’s loss.
“But time is always moving. We’re only at race one, we have two drivers who are doing a super job. It would be difficult to see how we could accommodate him, because we weren’t expecting him to be on the market. We never expected Ferrari to so rudely not offer him another contract.”
Asked if he could manage a Verstappen/Vettel line-up – with the interviewer comparing the situation with Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at McLaren – Horner suggested that he could work with both drivers.
However, he indicated that Mercedes was a more likely home, given that neither Lewis Hamilton nor Valtteri Bottas has been confirmed for 2021.
Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari, with Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing
Photo by: Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images
“They are both fantastic to work with. We had a fantastic time and a really great working relationship with Seb, and now exactly the same with Max.
“Of course Alex Albon we can’t ignore, he is developing very well. As I say the timing is unexpected – and I think for Sebastian as much as for the rest of F1. The big question is, what is Mercedes going to do? Is Lewis going to continue, is he going to retire? Are they going to keep Bottas? You have to take that into account.”
That may have been a bit of a smokescreen from Horner, but he had a point – as we speak neither Mercedes driver is signed up for 2021. Having said that George Russell is waiting in the wings and is the logical replacement should, for example, Hamilton decide to retire or take time out.
Meanwhile when asked Verstappen said he would be happy to have an experienced driver like Vettel alongside him, although given that he was sitting next to Seb he was hardly going to say any different.
“Yes, but I already had that with Daniel [Ricciardo] in the team,” said the Dutchman. “And that worked well. But in the end, of course, it’s not my decision.”
Asked if Vettel or Albon would be a more pleasant teammate, he said: “I’ve never worked with Sebastian before. So I have no idea. I don’t think there will normally be a problem. But of course, every driver in F1 wants to win.”
It would be a huge shame for Albon if he was to be dropped in favour of Vettel, but stranger things have happened in the Red Bull camp – and the bottom line is that British/Thai driver still has to maintain his upward curve and get consistent results. That’s the norm at Red Bull of course, so the ball is in his court.
If he doesn’t have a great first half of the 2020 season he would be vulnerable anyway. And then Vettel would have to be a serious option, given that both Gasly and Kvyat have had a shot at Red Bull, and been demoted.
What if it happens? Honda would certainly be overjoyed to have Vettel. And like Alonso at Renault he could enjoy a building year with the current cars in 2021, before launching into the new rules in 2022, at which point his experience and technical savvy would prove invaluable.
Don’t forget too that when the cost cap comes in, driver salaries remain outside the limits. Vettel has made it clear that money was not the issue with Ferrari, and he’s unlikely to ask for (or receive) a mega fee.
But the point is that whatever figure they ultimately receive, drivers are now see as the key differentiator that sits outside those financial restrictions. So why not take a four-time world champion?
Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull RB9 Renault
Photo by: Steve Etherington / Motorsport Images
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